A Unix shell is a command-line interpreter or shell that provides a traditional Unix-like command line user interface. Users direct the operation of the computer by entering commands as text for a command line interpreter to execute, or by creating text scripts of one or more such commands. Users typically interact with a Unix shell using a terminal emulator, however, direct operation via serial hardware connections, or networking session, are common for server systems. All Unix shells provide filename wildcarding, piping, here documents, command substitution, variables and control structures for condition-testing and iteration.
The most generic sense of the term shell means any program that users employ to type commands. A shell hides the details of the underlying operating system and manages the technical details of the operating system kernel interface, which is the lowest-level, or "inner-most" component of most operating systems.
In Unix-like operating systems, users typically have many choices of command-line interpreters for interactive sessions. When a user logs in to the system interactively, a shell program is automatically executed for the duration of the session. The type of shell, which may be customized for each user, is typically stored in the user's profile, for example in the local passwd file or in a distributed configuration system such as NIS or LDAP; however, the user may execute any other available shell interactively.
The Unix shell is both an interactive command language as well as a scripting programming language, and is used by the operating system as the facility to control (shell script) the execution of the system. Shells created for other operating systems often provide similar functionality.
On hosts with a windowing system, like OS X, some users may never use the shell directly. On Unix systems, the shell has historically been the implementation language of system startup scripts, including the program that starts a windowing system, configures networking, and many other essential functions. However, some system vendors have replaced the traditional shell-based startup system (init) with different approaches, such as systemd.
Graphical user interfaces for Unix, such as GNOME, KDE, and Xfce are sometimes called visual or graphical shells.